Why You Might Want To Stop Motivating The People You Manage

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The following is adapted from The Motivation Trap: Leadership Strategies to Achieve Sustained Success

Unless you’ve been living far away from the modern business environment for the past few decades, you’ll certainly be familiar with the idea that motivating employees is crucial for success.

There are numerous different ways to motivate, but most involve one of two approaches: offering people a reward to do what you want them to do or threatening them with punishment if they fail. “Ace this project and you’ll get a raise” versus “flunk this project and you’ll be in trouble.”

This may seem straightforward. But is motivation the most appropriate tool for accomplishing what you want?

What Motivation Does and Doesn’t Achieve

I am not a big fan of motivation—for many reasons. Mostly, I am not a fan because motivation rarely fulfills its purpose: to obtain effective, positive, passion-inspiring results from competent, high-quality human beings.

I invite you to join me in not being a big fan either. Not a hater, but not a big fan.

Have you ever wondered why super-smart, talented people underachieve? I believe one reason we see underachievement in team after team is that people are being motivated to produce their results, which equates to a carrot-and-stick approach to driving results. This is the push-theory tactic. When pushed, human beings generally push back. When led effectively, human beings tend to follow willingly.

Motivation almost always involves some form of push, which is a forceful approach. I suggest here a shift from a forceful approach to a powerful approach. Consider how your team might react to being inspired by a united cause rather than pushed by the need to produce. Inspiration lives in the realm of power. In the end, force generates resistance, but power is infectious.

Whether you’re trying to motivate your sales team to hit their highest revenue target ever or get your fourteen-year-old to clean his room and complete his homework, motivating people tends to be, in large part, a waste of time.

Having spent fifteen years coaching both high-performance teams and those striving for higher performance, I know from experience that motivation gets inserted as a default tool to accomplish many tasks, most of which would succeed much better (and encourage better attitudes from the people being led and managed) if motivation was not engaged.

Team leaders have been trained (or fooled) to think that their job is to motivate, and so they engage an overused tool instead of a more effective one. It’s that simple. They push rather than lead.

CEOs and team leaders from Fortune 500 companies and venture-backed start-ups often complain that they have trouble keeping their team motivated. What if it was not their job to motivate their team? What if team members were responsible for motivating themselves and bringing their own professional, positive, helpful, best selves to work each day? What might change with this expectation?

In Most Situations, Motivation Isn’t the Most Effective Tool

It’s not that motivation is completely valueless. It’s simply that, as tools go, there’s usually a more effective one available to do the job. Doubling down on motivation is like pushing harder on a door marked “pull”. It’s exerting more effort in the wrong direction.

The challenge is not for CEOs to motivate their teams better. The real challenge is to recognize that motivation almost always shows up as the least effective tool to get the job done.

If the sales team wants to hit their highest revenue target ever, you or I can most likely list several tools that might help leaders accomplish that worthwhile goal. Here are a few: training, new habits, collaboration, mentorship, coaching, technology upgrades (for example, better sales software), and creating individual and team purpose behind achieving the never-before-accomplished sales goal.

Use of any of these tools will produce a better result for each team member, for you, the team leader, and for the organization you all work for. What will motivation do? It might get a few people buzzing for a short time. After that, it will wear off and leave the team no more coherent, productive, or intelligent than before it was employed.

The most productive organizations I coach utilize tools that work in simple coordination with how our brains and biology function naturally. Working together with more than 100 companies over the last nine years, we have learned how to get the most from people by making sure that they move toward what they want to achieve, both in their personal and professional pursuits.

This animates people in a totally different way to asking them to move toward a promised reward or demanding that they move away from a negative consequence or a punishment.

What would your team look like, and what would your company culture feel like, if every day all your team members ran toward what they wanted to achieve—on purpose, focused, and ready to accept and conquer challenges as one of the most fun parts of their job?

If that was your reality, I trust you too might become a big fan of less motivation.

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For more advice on the limitations of motivation and strategies you can employ instead, you can find The Motivation Trap on Amazon.

John Hittler is the cofounder of Evoking Genius, a transformational business-coaching firm based in San Jose, California. Father of seven, happily married, competitive athlete, and dedicated volunteer in the field of domestic violence, John spends his free time dancing Tango with his wife, cooking for his friends and family, and traveling to places he has not yet visited. John can be reached at evokinggenius.com.

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